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Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture

Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture

By Kathlene McDonald
Paperback : 9781628460667, 146 pages, May 2014
Hardcover : 9781617033018, 160 pages, June 2012

A cultural history of women writers on the Left and the roots of feminist literary criticism


This book traces the development of a Left feminist consciousness as women became more actively involved in the American Left during and immediately following World War II. McDonald argues that women writers on the Left drew on the rhetoric of antifascism to critique the cultural and ideological aspects of women's oppression. In Left journals during World War II, women writers outlined the dangers of fascist control for women and argued that the fight against fascism must also be about ending women's oppression. After World War II, women writers continued to use this antifascist framework to call attention to the ways in which the emerging domestic ideology in the United States bore a frightening resemblance to the fascist repression of women in Nazi Germany.

This critique of American domestic ideology emphasized the ways in which black and working-class women were particularly affected and extended to an examination of women's roles in personal and romantic relationships. Underlying this critique was the belief that representations of women in American culture were part of the problem. To counter these dominant cultural images, women writers on the Left depicted female activists in contemporary antifascist and anticolonial struggles or turned to the past, for historical role models in the labor, abolitionist, and antisuffrage movements. This depiction of women as models of agency and liberation challenged some of the conventions about femininity in the postwar era.

The book provides a historical overview of women writers who anticipated issues about women's oppression and the intersections of gender, race, and class that would become central tenants of feminist literary criticism and black feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s. It closely considers works by writers both well-known and obscure, including Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Martha Dodd, Sanora Babb, and Beth McHenry.


"Kathlene McDonald provides a wonderfully informative and provocative portrait of radical women writers after World War II. Her meditation on the paradoxes of an emerging feminist consciousness opens up new intellectual vistas through a lucid and well-organized inquiry that is both engrossing and convincing."

- Alan M. Wald, author of Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade

"Professor McDonald's book is a provocative and important study of left-wing women's literary efforts in a time often thought to be devoid of such efforts. I am not aware of any sustained scholarship quite like it, though Professor McDonald's book belongs beside the significant new work in the fields of history, literature, and cultural studies rethinking the impact of the Left during the Cold War by such scholars as Mary Helen Washington, Martha Biondi, Judith Smith, Dayo Gore, and Ruth Feldstein. It sheds new light not only on the McCarthy era, but also on an important chapter in the evolution of U.S. feminism, particularly black U.S. feminism. It displays a sharp grasp of racial, class, and gender dynamics in the 1950s and does much to reveal hitherto under-considered connections between women's radicalism most often associated with the Old Left of the 1930s and 1940s and the Black Power and Black Arts upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s."

- James Smethurst, associate professor, W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst